GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Every Tuesday morning at 8 a.m., Chief Stein and I walk into the Event Center to greet Airmen newly arrived to Goodfellow for training. The majority of students have just graduated from Basic Military Training, and sometimes the room is jam-packed with upwards of 150 Airmen. Some of these Airmen are tired from traveling, others look apprehensive to be facing a Colonel and a Chief. Yet, when I ask these Airmen why they decided to join the Air Force, there are always a few hands that shoot straight into the air. I often hear answers about following a family tradition or working to overcome difficult circumstances, and the answers are frequently heart-felt and passionate. Every now and again, an Airmen will fall briefly silent, perhaps overwhelmed by his or her answer.
Recently, when Airman 1st Class Amber Martin came to attention and told me why she joined, I was the one who fell silent. I was the one overwhelmed.
On Sept. 29, 2009, A1C Martin’s brother, Staff Sgt. Jack Mayfield Martin, III, U.S. Army Special Forces soldier, climbed into a humvee with Sergeant 1st Class Christopher Shaw. They were crossing through a tropical forest on the Philippine island of Jolo in support of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines. Compared with Iraq, where Jack had recently served, Jolo was a veritable paradise. Instead of facing the constant threat of violence, Jack and the other Green Berets would play beach volleyball on their downtime, and when the jungle grew too hot, the men would cool off in the surf.
The mission was typical of our special forces fighters who, though exceptionally well trained and highly lethal, often seeking to build partnerships and the defense capacities of indigenous forces. Jack worked with the Philippine Armed Forces to build a school in the heart of an Abu Sayyaff stronghold, a terrorist group with ties to Al Qaeda. He showcased American support for the Philippine government. He told the terrorized people of Jolo that we were there to protect and defend them.
Meanwhile, Jack’s sister worked as a teacher in Oklahoma. She slept poorly during her little brother’s deployment to Iraq, but now Jack could tell her how good life was in the Philippines. He would tell his big sister how satisfying the mission was, but he would say, “Things are heating up.” Yet he reassured her that he was in no danger. Jack’s wife, Amber’s best friend, had felt confident enough to take an extended trip to Peru during Jack’s deployment. It was hard on everyone while Jack was gone, but at least they slept. At least they carried on because they felt he was safe.
On Sept. 29, 2009, this feeling of safety evaporated in a flash. As Jack’s humvee zipped along through the jungle, neither Jack nor Shaw noticed the patch of freshly disturbed dirt in the road. The homemade bomb, buried in a shallow depression, exploded near their truck, sending it briefly into the air and twisting violently back down to the earth. Neither Jack nor his battle buddy survived.
“I wanted to join,” Amber told us that morning in the Event Center. There were over a hundred Airmen listening to her every word. She was professional and well-spoken, but those of us gathered in the room heard a determined voice, an aspiration to serve in spite of the profound nature of her loss. “I wanted to join,” she said again, “but I wasn’t ready.” It was only after her daughter, Laila Suleiman, joined the Air Force, that Amber decided it was her time as well. “When I heard about the airborne intelligence mission with the 137th Special Operations Wing,” she told me later, “I was sold.”
Inspired by both her brother and her daughter, Amber took a leave of absence from her school in Oklahoma to attend Basic Military Training at Lackland. Someday, after she retires from teaching, Amber wants to work with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization that has helped the Martin family through their grief. For now, she feels called to work hard to complete her technical training at Goodfellow. The training is difficult but deeply meaningful, filling her with a tremendous sense of purpose. The opportunity to serve with operators like her brother, Jack, has been too great to pass up.
As a colonel, I have met literally tens of thousands of Airmen over the course of my career, and yet I never get tired of asking Airmen why they joined the Air Force. These days, with more than 20 years of service, people rarely ask why I joined. More often, I am asked why I stay. The answer is as easy as it is obvious. I stay because I am inspired to serve every day by Airmen like Amber, people who aspire to serve.